Hounds of Notre Dame Commentary

It is no easy feat to write a movie about a legendary teacher; nor is it any easier to direct, or star in one. The temptation to indulge in eulogy and cliché can be overwhelming. In telling the story of Père Athol Murray, warts and all, Hounds of Notre Dame manages to avoid these pitfalls. It’s a story that all Saskatchewan knows. The College of Notre Dame was and is a school located in Wilcox, about 30 miles south of Regina. It was started by the Sisters of Charity in 1920; Murray was appointed there in 1927, after having established the now famous memorial to the Jesuit Martyrs at Ste. Marie Aux Hurons, in Ontario.

Murray’s teaching philosophy was to blend a classical education with the character-building effects of sport, after the tradition of the English public schools. But Murray was uninterested in the pretensions of class. His goal was to provide an excellent education to any child who wanted it, even if they were poor or troubled. During the Depression of the 1930s, Notre Dame developed a reputation as just such a school. Catholics boys of all backgrounds, even those who were considered troublemakers elsewhere, came to Notre Dame and were treated equally. Those who couldn’t pay the $18 per month school fee, could pay in kind with chickens, beef, or coal.

Murray called each boy, “Kid”; and they all had to do chores. He got results. He was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, single-minded man. But he was also a brilliant and principled teacher and a devoted priest. Notre Dame’s debating teams regularly defeated teams sent out from eastern Canada. By 1933, Père Murray had achieved an affiliation for Notre Dame with the University of Ottawa. What is more, the school’s hockey team, the “Hounds,” was unbeatable, sending over 100 players to the NHL over the years of Murray’s coaching.

On the face of it, Notre Dame was an unprepossessing looking place in the 1930s and 40s. The boys lived in dormitories that were nothing more than converted sheds. Murray had to scrabble for every penny that it took to feed and house his boys, heat the buildings, and pay the teachers. An able rhetorician, he accepted speaking engagements for money; the only trouble was that his right-wing political views exposed the Church to criticism. This is where we meet Murray (Tom Peacocke) at the beginning of the movie, on the podium in full roar, equating Saskatchewan’s burgeoning social democratic party to a “bunch of Commies,” under that “Baptist,” Tommy Douglas. Seated in the audience is his Archbishop (Barry Morse) who is seriously annoyed.

Writer Ken Mitchell chose to structure the Athol Murray story around 18 hours in a typical day at the school. He picked Feb. 12, 1940 as that day because the school was then at the height of its development. The Père Murray that we see on screen is a distillation of all the stories from several decades that were related to Mitchell during the course of his research. Set in the middle of the Second World War in a province that had not yet recovered from the Depression, the movie offers its audience the standard outhouse scene and a blizzard, as well as a visceral experience of the poverty that haunts Murray. But Director Dalin’s treatment of that day is both sensitive and matter of fact: life at Notre Dame is what it is. There is no sentimentality here, just people dealing as competently and honestly as they can with they have – especially the children. Most of these Prairie children have never known anything but hardship. They eat the porridge, day in and day out; wear the moth-eaten hockey sweaters; look after one another; and play hockey, even when half the team is sick. Père is equally stoic. “If you can’t beat the muckers,” he calls out during the game in Moose Jaw, “at least give them the measles!”

There are several fine performances in Hounds of Notre Dame. Aside from Tom Peacocke’s breathtaking transformation into Athol Murray, the child actors are wonderful. Of the older boys, David Ferry gives an over-the-top performance as the spoiled rich boy dumped off at the school by a despairing father. And Phil Ridley is extraordinary as Cormack, the quiet, decent, principled head boy.

Financed largely by alumni of Notre Dame, the movie is one of four feature films based on western Canadian stories produced by Fil Fraser in the 1970s and early 80s. Hounds was actor Tom Peacocke’s first role in a movie, and Director Zale Dalen’s second movie. As Fil Fraser has remarked many times of that era in Alberta – the film business in the West was so young that everyone was learning together.

Hounds of Notre Dame won producer, Fil Fraser, the “Horst Award” in 1981 for best Alberta-made film, and it was nominated for 9 Genie awards in 1981, including best performance for an actor in a leading role (which Tom Peacocke won), the first time that a western Canadian movie had garnered this award. It was also nominated for best direction, best achievement in editing, best sound, best sound editing, best motion picture, best performance by a supporting actor, best performance by a supporting actress, and best original screenplay.

When he received his Genie, Peacocke spoke eloquently about receiving an award for best actor in a film that no one had seen. Like most English Canadian films, Hounds had difficulties with distribution. Executive Producer, Fil Fraser, says that the distributor went bankrupt just as it was supposed to send Hounds to the theatres, but that CBC then paid the highest fee in its history so that the movie could be broadcast. It was subsequently aired on HBO and in many countries around the world. Writer, Ken Mitchell still considers the script for Hounds to be the best thing he has ever written.

Evelyn Ellerman